Junior doctors and the fight for the moral high ground

It’s tough being a junior doctor. That much has become clear during a protracted and bitter dispute over contracts that has been fought for more than two years. But that’s not the only adversity they face. Despite agreeing to suspend strike action at the eleventh hour last night, they remain at risk of being seen as the villains of the piece.

News that today’s strike had been suspended was greeted with a near audible sigh of relief across the NHS. Much has been made of the failure to meet waiting times, the demands on hospital beds, and the financial precipice the NHS seems to be marooned on. Quite simply, coming into the busiest part of its year, the health service could ill-afford to have substantial numbers within its workforce downing tools.

So in that respect, the suspension of strike action was very much welcome in that it averted medium term catastrophe for the likes of emergency treatment. What it did not do, however, was prevent the cancellation of thousands of operations – with the eleventh hour announcement giving too little time for them to be rescheduled.

And this is a problem for the junior doctors’ cause. Because despite the fact they’ve agreed to hold off on industrial action until the New Year, they still risk being vilified by members of the public directly affected by the cancellation of medical procedures. Junior doctors and the Department of Health are now not only locked in a struggle over contracts. They’re locked in a struggle for the moral high ground.

The latter battle is one the BMA has attempted to shape by focusing its arguments on quality of care and patient safety. But for its part the Department of Health has continued to insist that the contract changes are necessary to meet the demands on the health service and to deliver the much vaunted seven day care. And in Jeremy Hunt, the Department of Health has a leader as committed to facing down the BMA as Michael Gove (who Mr Hunt has professed to admire the style of) was happy to engage in a slug-fest with the teaching unions while Education Secretary.

It is difficult not to feel sympathy with the situation junior doctors are in. They could be put in the position of working more difficult and unsociable hours. And they could have contracts imposed on them. But, the onus is arguably on them to use the ceasefire to seize the initiative. The Department of Health has accused the BMA of being unwilling to engage and negotiate. It can ill-afford to even be seen in such a light as of now.

Doctors retain a privileged position in the minds of the public – albeit less so than in years gone by. But what sympathy exists for junior doctors amongst the public might quickly evaporate if they are not seen to be doing everything possible to break the deadlock. The public is unlikely to be too tolerant of further mass appointment cancellations and ructions across the health service.